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June - July 2004


Hinduism is not about temples or priests

by P. Venkataramana

At the outset, it would be most appropriate to understand as to what the terms 'Hindu' and Hindu religion' connote or denote to 'we, the citizens of the modern world'. It has been rightly said that Indian civilization displays a manifest and inherent tendency towards religious outlook. The characteristics of Hinduism are its receptivity as well as the all-comprehensive and basically tolerant & assimilative character. As the result, it has had no difficulty, whatsoever, in including within its fold many varieties of beliefs and observances. It has, therefore, been aptly remarked that Hinduism has something to offer which is suited to all mind-sets

Also rightly observed is the fact that Hinduism is not a special cult or form of worship but is intrinsically a way of life and is all-comprehensive: this way of life (lifestyle) is founded upon the inseparable unity of the material world and the spiritual world and upon the constant, continuous attempt at comprehending the significance of the phenomena of growth, existence and dissolution and an after-life or lives!

Hinduism & Indian thought on religion and philosophy of life developed in several stages, over the ages. In the Vedic period, there is no specific mention of temples but only of the Supreme Being in its various manifestations, viz.; Agni (Fire), Surya (Sun), Ushas (Dawn), Vayu (Wind), Varuna (the God of eternal order and of the Seas) and the Ashvins. These and various other divinities were propitiated by hymns and sacrifices, but as one can see, no representation of them nor any abode for them existed .The Rig Veda (the foremost of the Scriptures in Hinduism) states that the earth is upheld not by the will of God but by Satya (Truth) of which God is the supreme exponent: after examining the Vedas as a whole, one realizes that they embody a doctrine of one divine substance pervading everything!

Next came the Aranyakas, the Brahmanas and the Upanishads during which period of the evolutionary-process, there was a marked reaction against mere rituals and sacrificial observances: the outlook then was that the knowledge and the perception of the Supreme Being should be gained not by reasoning or argument but by personal experience and realisation preferably gained through a Guru and by people performing actions without any attachment in their fruits.

In the later Upanishads, the idea of a personal God developed and devotion to such Godhead (FORM) is inculcated. So much so that such ideas were fully developed, expanded and sublimated in the great epical yore of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and in the various Puranas and Upapuranas. Quite interesting to note that the ideas so evolved have survived till date, centuries after they first arose. As is also well known, the Bhagvat Gita (Word of God) is embodied in one of the parts of the Mahabharata and alongwith the Vedas and the Brahmasutras constitutes the acknowledged substratum of all the varieties of Hindu belief and philosophical thought…

Hinduism is more than a special cult or particular type of worship: the Temples and the Mutts are the two principal institutions of the Hindu religious system. They supplement each other in regard to the spiritual welfare of the persons belonging to that system --- whereas remote temples afford opportunities for prayer to and an adoration of the Supreme Being in HIS various manifestations, the mutts (monastic institutions) exist chiefly for the imparting of spiritual instruction by preceptors who reside there alongwith their disciples for the purpose of the acquisition and spread of religious knowledge…

Temples as we now know them are not mentioned in the Samhita (the Vedic collection of hymns and prayers) which originated in the first period of Vedic literature. What is however found is the mention of 'Agnyagara', the place where a fire was lit and oblations made. Whichever deity was invoked, the sacred fire (Hutavaha) was to carry the oblation to Him. There was no other visible symbol of worship and no place for performing the sacrifice except the altar which existed in the householder's own place of residence.

Thus, Agnyagara may well be regarded as the origin of a Temple. In a later era, the words 'Devathavathanam' (house of God) and 'Devapratima' (image of God) began to be used. Eventually, in course of time and by the time Sage Gautama authored the 'Dharmashastra', charitable endowments like wells, gardens, choultries, etc; were in existence and the idea of grants of lands for charitable and pious purposes was already well established. However, it was from the days of the Puranas that the construction of temple assumed great importance .The association with the Vedic practice of worship in the homes, led to communal worship in the villages and in the cities and the development of temples in villages and in cities besides shrines in households.

Buddhism originated about the fifth century BC mainly as protest against some of the rituals and sacrifices of the Vedas. Although it was a non-theistic religion without any belief in any Intelligent First Class of the Universe, the respect which the Buddhists paid to relics and sacred scriptures and later on to the image of Buddha himself as objects of worship may be said to have ultimately paved the path for widespread image-worship in INDIA.

The Forms of God that are generally worshipped by the Hindus today are for the most part deities celebrated in the Itihasas and the Puranas. The images worshipped are predominantly of those of Vishnu and Shiva in their several forms and manifestations .The worship of Shakthi or the female principle described as a consort of Shiva in the different forms of Uma, Parvathi, Kali, Lalitha, Kanakadurga, etc; also became popular. So also various aspects of Lakshmi as the consort or Sakthi of Vishnu; of Saraswathi as the consort of Brahma and other female divinities have received great prominence. Different temples contain different images or representations of Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu Pantheon.

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